TOP-RANKING officials at Edinburgh Airport are set to fly to the Middle East next week as they ramp up efforts to clinch new international air routes.
Airport owners Global Infrastructure Partners [GIP] are understood to be in discussions with both Etihad and Qatar airways over the possibility of starting new flights into the Capital.
Confirmation that chief executive Gordon Dewar will be part of the travelling party to Dubai came yesterday as Sir Richard Branson flew into the Capital to officially launch Virgin Atlantic’s Little Red service operating between Edinburgh and London Heathrow.
Flights are running six times a day between the destinations.
Sir Richard predicted the route would prove viable despite stiff competition from British Airways, with its success to be judged on how many connecting British passengers are fed into Virgin’s long-haul network.
A stand-alone Virgin Holidays store will be opened in the city centre in coming months, with a separate outlet to be launched at the Tesco superstore in Broughton Road.
Nearly 20 new jobs, including three apprenticeships for young people, will be created under the stores’ venture.
The Little Red initiative, which includes flights from Heathrow to Aberdeen, is creating 130 jobs in Scotland.
Sir Richard said: “We will do everything we can to make it viable. We think we can get enough traffic through on to our international services and from our international services through to Edinburgh and Aberdeen to make it pay.”
Sir Richard said he had not launched the service specifically because of Scotland’s busy events schedule next year, which includes the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and the Commonwealth Games. He said he was “staying out” of the country’s independence debate, but added: “Virgin will be happy to fly you around the world whether you’re an independent country or part of the UK.”
Virgin is offering “zero fares” – where passengers pay only taxes and charges – on the Little Red service across May and June in a bid to woo passengers. The airline has added the new domestic flights after take-off and landing slots at Heathrow were made available following the takeover of carrier BMI by British Airways’ parent company IAG last year.
Turkish Airlines is also increasing the frequency of its Edinburgh-Istanbul route from four times weekly to daily from May 20.
Airport owners launched a £15 million war chest in January to help target new routes to the Middle East and North America.
There are no direct routes into the Middle East outside of Turkey and Cyprus, with airline giant Emirates flying to Dubai daily from Glasgow rather than Edinburgh.
An airport spokesman said the Middle East visit by Mr Dewar – the former chief executive of Bahrain International Airport – was a “routine trip” to further the development of new routes into the Capital.
Edinburgh Western MSP Colin Keir predicted Virgin Atlantic’s presence would help make the Capital a more attractive destination for other international airlines. He said Britain’s exorbitant air passenger duty meant more passengers would want to fly directly to destinations such as Edinburgh rather than via Heathrow.
Mr Keir said: “The business community are screaming out for more international flights. There’s a market here in Edinburgh. You look at the business opportunities in the likes of India, China and the far east generally and you have to have good links.”